The time is July, 1953, and the place the western front of the Korean War. Yes, the war is still going on...for some reason. As the opening subtitles note, the Korean War could have ended a few months after it started back in 1950. Not that it's the place of soldiers to question such matters. North Korean soldier Yeong-gwang (played by Yeo Jin-goo) is a teenager with little comprehension of what North Korea even is. Then one random errand leaves Yeong-gwang in a fumbling scramble to do right by the country he barely understands.
I should note that South Korea, represented chiefly by older soldier Nam-bok (played by Sol Kyung-gu) fares no better on the propaganda end, and for good reason. In 1953 notions of "North" and "South" Korea were still generally nonsensical. Yeong-gwang and Nam-bok both run across civilian Koreans who rather transparently give answers obviously intended to avoid getting themselves shot. Because that's what most people do in an actual war. They try to avoid getting shot. It's funny.
No, I mean that. Perhaps it's just because I've spent my life inundated by American fetishization of soldiers as being implacable incorruptible heroes, but the way "The Long Way Home" instead represents its soldiers as being kind of dopey was just really, really appropriate. Yeong-gwang doesn't stop being a stupid teenager just because some guy somewhere handed him a gun. What's more, his adventures across the western front aren't any less absurd just because he has a very important mission that predictably turns out to not be all that important at all.
This sense of irony is what pervades the humor of "The Long Way Home", because that's what Yeong-gwang and Nam-bok really want to do. They just want to go home. Not to North Korea or South Korea, but to their families. What's more, they realize the longer the film goes on that war really is futile. They have no idea what they're doing and are just making it up as they go along. And for what? Revenge? Comedy is more like it.
It's the visuals which really sell the jokes in "The Long Way Home", though, as we're constantly treated to this majestic empty landscape- which just serves to emphasize how futile the whole endeavor is. One excellent two-dimensional shot that keeps popping up just involves various misadventures regarding people going one direction or another with some sort of vehicle or another, and every single time there's a completely different punchline. As it turns out, being an Army of One mostly just guarantees that you get things wrong half the time on purpose and right half the time by accident.
The main criticism that can be lobbed against "The Long Way Home" is that it's a tad predictable- but really, I'm completely cool with more movies having the message that war is bad, since apparently the most powerful country in the world still thinks it can solve problems by just dropping bombs everywhere. Besides, the emotional punch by the end is a harsh one. Yeo Jin-goo and Sol Kyung-gu really sell their performances as normal guys making the best they can of a bad situation. They don't have any idea what they're doing. But then, does anyone in wartime?
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Long Way Home""
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